Albert Maysles, with his brother and co-director David, is responsible for some of the most famous and influential documentaries of all time. If you haven’t heard of him, just pick up Grey Gardens at Kim’s. The story of two of Jackie Kennedy’s lesser-known relatives living in a crumbling Long Island mansion, it has inspired a musical and generations of fashionistas (Sienna Miller, anyone?), as well as adding a personal touch that hadn’t existed in documentaries prior.
So, Mayles is a great documentarian. And don’t think he doesn’t know it.
In an event hosted by the Columbia Undergraduate Scholars Program in Low Library on Tuesday evening, Maysles spoke for two hours, interspersing clips from his films with anecdotes from his career and reflections such as this: “This is the best film ever made about the Beatles” (about his 1964 documentary What’s Happening!). Other reflections, while similarly self-congratulatory, managed to illuminate the filmmaking process. Maysles discussed his typical six-week shooting process and his methods for getting subjects to open up. Here, Mayles set himself in contrast with Michael Moore and other controversial contemporary documentarians; his interest is not in subjects that champion his particular political agenda, but rather intrinsically fascinating characters. And, his disgust with the current market for documentaries was typically, well, Maylesian: “A great filmmaker like me can’t get on ABC, NBC, CBS, HBO. My God, what kind of country do we live in?”
While it may be untrue that Maysles invented the documentary feature film (as he claims) there’s an undeniable influence to be seen in the humanity of his work – for instance, in the tender sympathy of Grey Gardens’s “Big Edie” Beale sings a showtune while combing her hair. A lesser director would have pitched the scene as simply grotesque, and missed the pathos behind Marlon Brando’s lascivious leer in Meet Marlon Brando, or looked only at the legend and not the humanity of Christo and Jean-Claude in the upcoming The Gates. Maysles put it this way: “In all of my films, it is the human element that predominates.” Here, at last, Maysles was dead-on.